Two people who know about the situation say that new owner Elon Musk told Twitter Inc. to get rid of a feature that promoted suicide prevention hotlines and other safety resources to people who looked up certain content.
After this story came out, Ella Irwin, who is in charge of trust and safety at Twitter, told Reuters in an email that “We have been making changes and fixes to our prompts.” They were only taken away temporarily so that we could do that.
She said, “We hope to have them back up next week.”
The removal of the “There Is Help” feature had not been discussed before. It had put contact information for support groups in many countries at the top of specific searches about mental health, HIV, vaccines, child sexual exploitation, COVID-19, gender-based violence, natural disasters, and freedom of speech.
Its removal made people worry more about the safety of vulnerable Twitter users. Musk has said that impressions, or views, of harmful content are going down since he took over in October. He has also tweeted graphs showing a downward trend, even though researchers and civil rights groups have seen an increase in tweets with racial slurs and other hateful content.
Internet services like Twitter, Google, and Facebook have tried for years to send users to well-known resources like government hotlines when they think someone may be in danger. This is in part because of pressure from consumer safety groups.
In her email, Irwin from Twitter said, “Google does a great job with these in their search results, and some of the changes we are making are based on how they do things.”
She also said, “We know these prompts are helpful in many situations, and we just want to make sure they work well and stay useful.”
Eirliani Abdul Rahman, who used to be in a Twitter content advisory group that just broke up, said that the disappearance of #ThereIsHelp was “extremely troubling and deeply disturbing.”
Even if it were only taken away temporarily to make room for improvements, she said, “you would normally be working on it at the same time, not taking it away.”
Both AIDS United in Washington, which was promoted in #ThereIsHelp, and iLaw, a Thai group that supports free speech, told Reuters on Friday that they were surprised that the feature had gone away.
AIDS United said that until December 18, about 70 people looked at a website that was linked to by Twitter. Since then, 14 people have looked at it.
Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network, a Twitter partner, has an executive director named Damar Juniarto. On Friday, he tweeted about the missing feature and said that “stupid actions” by the social media service could cause his organisation to stop using it.
The people who knew about Musk’s decision to have the feature taken down didn’t want to be named because they were afraid of getting in trouble. One of them said that messages with the hashtag #ThereIsHelp had been seen by millions of people.
According to tweets from the company, Twitter started offering some prompts about five years ago, and some of them were available in more than 30 countries. In one of its blog posts about the feature, Twitter said it was their job to make sure users could “access and get help on our service when they need it most.”
Alex Goldenberg, the lead intelligence analyst at the non-profit Network Contagion Research Institute, said that search results no longer showed prompts that were there just a few days ago.
In August, he and his colleagues published a study that showed how the number of times some terms related to self-harm were mentioned on Twitter each month had gone up by more than 500% in the past year. Younger users are especially at risk when they see this kind of content.
“If this decision is a sign of a change in policy that they no longer take these issues seriously, that is very dangerous,” said Goldenberg. “It goes against Musk’s promises to put child safety first in the past.”
Musk has said that he wants to get rid of content on Twitter that is sexually abusive to children, and he has criticised how the previous owners dealt with the problem. But he has cut a lot of people from the teams that work with potentially offensive material.